Reflections on Installing ‘The Brownings In Our World’ Exhibit

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, I was very excited to work closely with Dr. King’s English senior seminar, The Brownings In Our World. I was just beginning my work as a graduate research assistant at the ABL and it was a great way to introduce me more intimately to the Brownings, to the excellent collections here, and to the role of being a research resource for the students. I truly enjoyed handling the objects and provided digitization services for the course. This specifically was needed for the images the students utilized in an online exhibition they created during the semester. The exhibit displayed the analysis that they had conducted about certain pieces in the ABL collections and used themes found in the Brownings’ works for application to current societal issues.

Book open displaying two pages.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” in ‘Blackwoods Magazine’ (August 1843).

Being familiar with the materials that they used in their class exhibit and the details of the course, I was a great fit to help transition the digital exhibit into a physical one for display at the ABL. I had never created an official exhibit like this before, so it seemed like a large undertaking to organize it and write all of the official text. The most difficult part of this process was making edits that remained true to the student’s original work while also preparing it to the professional standards of the museum. The students made their dialogue accessible and appropriate for the digital platform of the class exhibit as an academic work; however, there are specific ways that the explanation for the physical objects must change to fit a face-to-face medium for a museum. Though a professional exhibit, the information has to be appropriate for a diverse audience with a wide age and educational range. The pieces also require 3D spacing and labels that provide context for the research. For someone who is unfamiliar with what they are looking at, having that additional information in plain language is crucial for fully understanding the object and its significance.

A very exciting moment was finally arranging the objects in their cases in the Hankamer Treasure Room. No matter how much you prepare an exhibit, it can’t truly work until you know if it will all fit and be arranged properly in your space. If something is too large, if your amount of text becomes overwhelming, or the flow of the exhibit does not feel natural, then it is back to the drawing board! Multiple arrangements were tested before the final day to avoid any major last-minute changes. Once it began to take shape, I began to truly feel excited about the end result!

Exhibit cases with items in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

Exhibit cases displaying artifacts from ‘The Brownings in Our World’ in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

As the last item was placed on the black velvet in the case, that moment was the ultimate culmination of the work completed by the students and I over the last several months. It was a satisfying feeling to see it all through to the end and to have completed my first professional exhibit! All of the details fell into place nicely and provided a very valuable and practical learning experience.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

The Brownings In Our World: Exhibit Introduction

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

Our newest exhibit at the Armstrong Browning Library, The Brownings In Our World, began as a digital exhibition curated by Baylor students. During the Fall 2020 semester, an English senior seminar of the same name—ENG 4364: The Brownings In Our World—was taught by Dr. Joshua King and hosted at the ABL. This particular course was in perfect harmony with its surroundings as it explored how the lives and writings of the Browning poets might have important connections to major challenges in our modern world. Both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning often reflected on complex subjects of life throughout their poetry, including injustice, relations to nature, and debated faith. The class studied the poets with these ideas in mind and published their findings in a digital exhibit created over the course of the semester. Each student chose artifacts or pieces of poetry found in the ABL’s collections that they analyzed and presented with various digital media.

As they held class here and utilized rare items from our collections, it seemed fitting to create a physical showcase to bring their research to a broader audience on campus, in our local community, and to all visitors of the library. A single item from each student’s presentation was selected to represent their thematic research and has been arranged for viewing in the Hankamer Treasure Room. The collective work of the class and the exhibit show the Brownings’ poetry as valid contemporary commentary for societal issues of today and promotes the research that can be found at our library. This kind of dialogue lines up directly with our mission of providing these materials expressly for the appreciation and understanding of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a grander context.

We invite you to visit The Brownings in Our World exhibit that is now available to view digitally at https://blogs.baylor.edu/thebrowningsinourworld/ and in person at the Armstrong Browning Library in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

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Themes as Explored in the Exhibits:

Power and (In)Justice:

The Brownings’ often wrestled with their own ties to the systematic racial, gender, and class injustices that shaped their lives and Victorian society. Despite these personal connections and even benefitting from some of them, Robert and Elizabeth advocated for those experiencing these inequalities and protested the perpetuation of these conditions through their poetry.

Relating to Nature:

Influenced by natural beauty and the romanticism of the previous generation, the Brownings’ utilized nature to express complex feelings of love and appreciation. They included flowers and natural scenes in much of their poetry, often appreciative of its effects on their quality of life. They also recognized that deplorable, unhealthy living environments could be detrimental and worked to bring attention to those experiencing poverty and terrible working conditions.

Debated Faith:

Robert and Elizabeth featured many religious ideas and diverse interpretations of sacred text in their works. Spiritualism and increasing debates about religion at the time created new definitions of faith that had profound influence on both of the Brownings. Their followers have even taken to devoting themselves almost religiously to their body of works.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020 & Browning Societies

By Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Beginning graduate school is an intimidating endeavor. There are questions swirling in your mind such as whether or not you can make it through, if this graduate school was the right choice, and if you will enjoy the work when it actually becomes your job. I was fairly confident that I would be able to handle the academic requirements of graduate school. It was my graduate assistantships that concerned me the most. I could not be sure that I would be good at my job. Of course, it was not expected for me to already be experienced and know what I was doing. The point of a graduate assistantship is to give you that experience and that practical knowledge. But still, I had questions which needed answering.

One of the first substantial jobs I did at the Armstrong Browning Library was to organize materials from Browning societies or clubs across the world. Before my graduate assistantship at the ABL, I had no idea that the Brownings were such monumental figures in literature. I had read some of Robert and Elizabeth’s poetry, but was completely unaware of the devoted fans who follow them and their works to this day. The task of organizing and cataloguing the materials from different Browning societies opened my eyes to this fascination that still surrounds them. Each Browning society met consistently to discuss literary topics, mainly focused around the Brownings. With each society came things such as a yearbook for each year the club was in existence, meeting notices for each meeting, programs for every special event, and newspaper clippings with mentions of the club or the Brownings. The clubs spanned from Waco, to Seattle, to New York, to Manchester England. Certain clubs had materials which spread decades and generations. Some of these club are still in existence today.

At the start of this project, I was processing the yearbooks or meeting notices from different societies. Once I finished organizing and cataloging those, I began work on the New York Browning Society’s materials. This was separate from the yearbooks. In this material there were financial records, meeting minutes, bulletins, and event programs, and other miscellaneous society materials. This portion of the collection was mainly from the 1970’s through the 1990s. Unlike the yearbooks, which needed to be re-homed and catalogued, this material was partially unorganized. This presented new obstacles for archival work. There were certain areas of the materials which were organized with a clear original order. Those materials were not to be rearranged because the original order is kept as intact as possible. However, this whole collection did not have an original order. For the sections which no original order could be determined, it was my responsibly to decide what the best order was for these materials. This required intellectually and physically rearranging these materials to help them to make sense with the original order, while also being usable for research.

Two boxes sitting on a table.

NYC Browning Society Boxes

This whole project not only taught me about the enthusiasm that encompasses the Brownings, but also vital archival skills. Every object had to be arranged chronologically, catalogued, and described before being re-homed in a document box. This is basic archival work which I knew in theory, but was able to receive practical experience in.

The most important thing which this project, and everything I have done at the Armstrong Browning Library this semester, taught me was the answer “it depends”. There were countless times I would ask questions about organizing, archival processes, or the way things were done at the ABL to receive the answer “it depends”. In archival work, there is not always a right answer or an obvious choice. There are many variables that lead to the solution, and often times it is up to the archivist to make the decisions which will lead to the best solution.

Once I began receiving the answer of “it depends” at the ABL, I noticed that questions in my classes were answered with an it depends as well. In the museum field, there may be no right answer, no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, the classes and the experiences of our graduate assistantships are giving us the information necessary to create our own framework to know how to proceed when the answer is “it depends”. I may still have the questions which I had at the beginning of the year, and this semester may have raised other questions in my mind, but I am in a program and working graduate assistantships which are teaching me how to answer my questions. And I look forward to continuing to learn through my experiences, particularly with archival and conservation work at the ABL in order to continue in their mission to preserve the Brownings in order to encourage the continued study of their works.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020

By Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Graduate Assistant Desk and laptop. Stained glass window depicting Robert Browning's Ferishtah's Fancies above desk.

Graduate Assistant Work Space

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the collections processing work that I have done for the ABL’s Browning Society Ephemera Collection! Many of these items were inaccessible and disorganized before and now they are reaching a point where they can be easily located. Its important to make sure that all our materials are stored properly and readily available to the next person who needs to use them. Files of correspondence, meeting minutes, announcements, and many other documents will now be preserved and accessible!

What helped you learn the most?

I was very happy to be able to assist Dr. King’s course about the Brownings’ poetry at the library this fall semester! It was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with what the library has to offer, how its resources are organized, and the processes of making those resources available to those who request them. I also learned about handling and preparing some of the rarer materials in the collection to be digitized as the students prepared a virtual exhibit. It was very exciting, and I enjoyed working with the artifacts, books, and manuscripts!

What would you like to do more of?

I would love to continue working with the collections directly and preparing them for researchers! I really enjoy being in touch with developments in the academic community and then providing the resources that they need to learn about their subject. The physical collections we have are fascinating and I enjoy discovering new things every day!

“Wilder Ever Still & Wilder!”: A Successful Benefactor’s Day 2020

By Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

On November 5th, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum upheld its annual tradition of hosting a Benefactor’s Day program to thank all those that support the functions of our institution. The celebration looked a bit different this year—being presented virtually on Zoom to all the ABL’s benefactors and supporters—but was held in the same joy as all previous programs.

Wilder Ever Still & Wilder Image

Benefactors’ Day graphic designed by Baylor Libraries Marketing and Communications Department

Dr. Beverly Taylor and Dr. Marjorie Stone provided the afternoon’s presentation about their collaborative research into Victorian wedding journeys and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own enlightening experience as expressed in her unpublished honeymoon poem. Dr. Beverly Taylor is a Professor of English at the University of North Carolina and Dr. Marjorie Stone is the McCulloch Professor Emeritus of English at Dalhousie University. They discussed the historical and biographical context of EBB’s composition in the light of the Victorian era’s development of the honeymoon ritual and the transition of the Brownings’ courtship into intimate married life. Following the lecture, a Q&A session was held for viewers to ask questions over the presentation. A full recording of the celebration program may be viewed at https://www.baylor.edu/library/index.php?id=973376

Thank you to all who choose to support the Armstrong Browning Library and continue to contribute to our efforts towards providing collections, research, fellowships, and programming to our communities. We hope that you can join us again next year!

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Things Not Shown

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

Things Not Shown: What Didn’t Make It into the Exhibit

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds a first edition of Matthew Arnold’s New Poems, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Dover Beach.” Hardly an argument for religion’s advocacy for ecological care, “Dover Beach,” provides a sobering counterpoint to many of the texts displayed in this fall’s exhibition, “‘Every common bush afire with God: Divine Encounters with the Living World.” While most of the exhibition’s writers and artists advocate for creation care because of nature’s participation in the grace and presence of God, Arnold’s poem argues the reverse. Rather than being “afire with God,” the natural world is empty of divine purpose or presence:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. (113)

Arnold’s image of the “Sea of Faith…Retreating” represents for many what religious faith in the nineteenth century looked like. In the face of scientific and industrial progress, little room was left for the mystery of a divine Creator.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

But other writers not only held to their Christian faith; they were moved by it to care for the world around them and create art and poetry that reflected that world’s beauty, fragility, and dignity. One could argue that Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledges Arnold’s perspective in A Drama of Exile. Written as a theatrical narrative of Adam and Eve, A Drama of Exile explores the broken relationship between nature and humanity as a consequence of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At one point, Eve laments her separation from nature, remembering what she had been in the Garden:

…was I not, that hour,

The lady of the world, princess of life,

Mistress of feast and favour? Could I touch

A rose with my white hand, but it became

Redder at once? (72-73)

In sinlessness, Eve’s presence made nature more fully itself—the roses more red, the grass more green, the leaves of the trees more quivering with life, the birdsong more glad. In turn, she was more herself as well, more “princess of life, / Mistress of feast and favour.” Eve’s separation from God places her at odds with the natural world, limiting its capacity to communicate divine grace.

It is precisely because of this distance that poets like Barrett Browning must remind us through their poetry that nature has its own unique relationship with God, and that the common material of the world around us is also more than material. The distance incurred by the fall keeps God’s presence in the ordinary world from being self-evident. In her introduction to A Drama of Exile, Barrett Browning argues against those who would separate religious concerns from common life, “As if life were not a continual sacrament to man, since Christ brake the daily bread of it in His hands!… As if the word God were not, everywhere in His creation, and at every moment in His eternity, an appropriate word!” (6).

 

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

Poets like Barrett Browning who wished to speak prophetically on the state of nature in nineteenth-century imagination drew heavily on William Blake’s poetic works. Blake’s familiar poem, “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one such reminder, not only that God made the “Little Lamb,” but that “he calls himself a Lamb” (11). The poem is a gentle, childlike reminder that nature shares in God’s blessings, and that all of God’s creatures are his children—not humanity alone. God can be known and understood by humanity through his other creatures.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Much later in the century, Gerard Manley Hopkins expands beautifully on this idea in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” In it, he describes how the whole earth is “charged with the grandeur of God,” but that we fail to feel his presence because “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod” (26). This line echoes the narrative in Exodus in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the bush burning with divine presence. The ABL’s current exhibition displays Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prose novel Aurora Leigh, showing the famous passage quoted in the exhibit’s title: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes” (304). Christina Rossetti’s poem “Tread Softly,” from A Pageant and Other Poems is displayed next to Aurora Leigh, which also alludes to the Mosaic narrative: “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground. / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes, / This spot we stand on is a Paradise” (153). In Hopkins’s poem, our failure to “tread softly” is directly related to our excessive concern with false progress. We have stripped the soil of its fruitfulness and beauty through “trade” and “toil”—both consequences of the fall, like Eve’s distance from the created world—and in the process we’ve “shod” our feet as well.

Hopkins’s poem ends in confidence, however, that “nature is never spent.” Looking back with twenty-first-century hindsight, it’s difficult to have such a hope. His poem “Binsey Poplars,” featured early in the exhibition, seems more honest about the irretrievable loss of nature as a result of human carelessness and destruction. To have hope, we need to take more seriously the possibility that the “grandeur of God” lies within all of nature. We need to believe with Barrett Browning that our deepest humanity is found in recognizing our participation in the natural world, not in setting ourselves at odds with it. Until then, it’s small wonder that Arnold’s poem rings true for so many readers. We have failed to take off our shoes.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Class Exhibit: Mary Shelley

On December 9th at 9:05am, Dr. Kristin Pond’s English 3351: Literary Networks in the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Centuries course will be presenting their Great Exhibition. This is a class project which requires students to explore what artifacts, including original letters, manuscripts and books, photographs, and actual objects exist at the Armstrong Browning Library related to each student’s assigned author.

The exhibition will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room for the entire morning December 9th, 2019.

To prepare for the exhibition, students wrote a short biography of their author and practiced analyzing an artifact for what it reveals about their author. A sample of one student’s preliminary research follows.

 

Mary Shelley – Life, Writings, and Browning Correspondence

Mary Shelley, daughter of political radical William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), was born in 1797. Sadly, her mother died due to an internal bacterial infection following childbirth. Possibly to escape a troubled household and a horrible stepmother, 16-year-old Mary eloped in 1814 with the then-married romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Through her husband Percy, Mary Shelley continued to receive encouragement on her writing, as she had for most of her life under the watch of her intellectual father. On the point of Percy’s influence, however, there have been a number of misunderstandings – all at the expense of Mary Shelley’s creative reputation.

In her biography Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, author Anne Mellor analyzes Mary Shelley’s writings and journals through a feminist lens, validating Mary’s standing as an independent writer of Frankenstein, a gothic masterpiece. Contrary to what some may believe, Percy was an avid supporter – not a controlling editor – of his wife’s writings.

Prior to the 21st century, scholars had assumed that Percy had essentially taught his wife how to write well. This assumption may be based on the fact that one of Mary’s copies of Frankenstein contains several grammatical and syntax edits by Percy. In one edition of Frankenstein, Percy actually wrote the novel’s preface as if he was Mary. Moreover, Mary’s writing contains a description of Mont Blanc which some have linked with Percy’s “Mont Blanc” poem. To make matters worse, due to the constraints of the time, the first copies of Frankenstein were actually published under Percy Shelley’s name.

That being said, however, Mary Shelley did craft the vast majority of Frankenstein, not to mention her other works. Being as independent and nonconformist as her feminist mother, Mary most likely would not have permitted over-involved literary edits on Percy’s part. In her History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, when describing the natural world about her, Mary says, “God has not reduced our dwelling-place – as Puritans would his – to a bare meeting-house, all there is radiant in glorious colours” (12). Through her criticism of Puritan religion and her gushing over natural beauty, Mary not only reveals her open-minded, non-conformist attitude towards history and society but also her idealistic writer’s heart.

A romantic spirit, Mary found her soulmate and escape from the world in Percy Shelley, who viewed her as his intellectual equal. For the eight years they lived together, Percy Shelley was deeply in love with Mary, to the point that he sometimes expressed wishes to retreat onto an island with her and his child, them against the world. Evidence of a mutually constructive literary relationship can be found in their correspondence. For example, in a letter by Mary Shelley to a friend, Percy interposes, writing “Poor Mary’s book has come back with a refusal which has put me in rather ill spirits.” In another letter, Percy writes to Mary, “Be severe in your corrections, & expect severity from me, your sincere admirer. – I flatter myself you have composed something unequalled in its kind.” Rather than lead Mary’s writing endeavors, Percy avidly supported them, offering constructive criticisms. His prefaces to Mary’s Frankenstein and History of a Six Weeks’ Tour were part of a collaborative effort, not of a failing on Mary’s part. In turn, Mary offered up her own support and criticisms of Percy’s writing, including his poems “The Witch of Atlas” and “Rosalind and Helen,” which Percy might not have published if not for her encouragement. Following Percy’s tragic drowning in 1822, Mary edited and published Percy’s works posthumously.

Through Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s account of Frankenstein’s creation, Mary Shelley reveals herself to be curious, conscientious, and sensitive, channeling her life’s questions, worries, and griefs into her writing. In 1816, Mary Shelley received an awaited opportunity to prove her worth as a writer when Lord Byron suggested to his Shelley friends that they each write a ghost story. Having been the only one of her peers to take Byron’s story prompt seriously, Mary Shelley was finally inspired after a period of much creative anxiety. Drawing from her recent grief and nightmares about childbirth, Mary Shelley “gave birth” to a “hideous progeny,” in the form of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. In 1817, at the age of nineteen, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein following the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet, the suicide of Mary Shelley’s half-sister Fanny, and the death of Mary Shelley’s infant daughter. Undoubtedly, these deaths influenced the macabre tone and themes of the novel.

Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Shelley was a key component of a 19th century network of feminist writers. Just as Elizabeth Browning wrote poems in honor or in critique of other female writers, such as her “Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon,” Mary Shelley likely looked up to a network of precursing female gothic writers as literary models. These writers included Ann Radcliffe (writer of The Mysteries of Udolpho) and Charlotte Dacre (writer of The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer).

Yet, in spite of their female literary backgrounds, very little communication existed between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Shelley. Despite her success as an author, it appears that Mary Shelley was overshadowed by Percy Shelley in the Brownings’ eyes. While Percy Shelley’s writings and beliefs heavily influenced Robert Browning (he became an atheist vegetarian after reading Percy’s Queen Mab), Browning’s only mention of Mary Shelley in his letters was of her sorry state following Percy Shelley’s death. An 1845 letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the only published letter in which Robert Browning writes of her. In this letter, Browning recalls:

The ‘Mary dear’ with the brown eyes, and Godwin’s daughter and Shelley’s wife, and who surely was something better once upon a time…when she and the like of her are put in a new place, with new flowers, new stones, faces…[she] wisely saying ‘ who shall describe that sight ! ‘ — Not you, we very well see…

Robert Browning then goes on to say:

But once she travelled the country with Shelley on arm; now she plods it, Rogers in hand…but she is wrong every where, that is, not right, not seeing what is to see, speaking what one expects to hear — I quarrel with her, for ever, I think.

In spite of Mary Shelley’s success as a writer, Robert Browning saw her as a sort of soft-eyed sweetheart, consumed by grief to the point that she was annoying to be around. Rather than refer to her as “author of Frankenstein” or something more flattering, Browning identifies Mary Shelley by her radical writer relations. Briefly, he does recognize Mary Shelley’s past accomplishments when he says, “something better once upon a time.” Otherwise, he is annoyed by her apparent inability to say or write anything interesting or insightful.

This characterization of Mary Shelley is surprisingly harsh, considering that the Brownings may have respected Mary Shelley’s works. In fact, at least two of the books in their library were ones that Mary Shelley had either written or edited: History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Posthumous Poems. That being said, they did not own a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which may explain their misperception of grieving gothic Mary as overly sweet or passive. If only the Brownings knew that Mary had saved the heart of Percy, a small organ wrapped in a sheet of posthumous poetry and tucked away inside her desk drawer.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Letters of Robert Browning and  Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. Vol. 1, New York and London, Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1899. 2 vols.

Creech, Melinda. “Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley [née Godwin] (1797–1851).” Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, Baylor University, 23 July 2013, blogs.baylor.edu/armstrongbrowning/tag/frankenstein/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York and London, Routledge, 2009.

Mercer, Anna. “The Literary Collaboration of Mary and Percy Shelley.” Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, Wordsworth Trust, 2017, wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2015/02/15/mine-own-hearts-home-the-literary-collaboration-of-mary-and-percy-bysshe-shelley/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

Poetry Foundation, editor. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Poetry Foundation, edited by Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-wollstonecraft-shelley. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

Pottle, Frederick A., M.A. Shelley and Browning: A Myth and Some Facts. Pembroke Press, 1923.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. London, T. Hookam, 1817.

Shelley, Percy. Letter to Mary Shelley. 10 Aug. 1821. Letters. Edited by Frederick L. Jones, vol. 324. Oxford University, 2015.

Shelley, Percy. Letter to Mary Shelley. 15 Aug. 1821. Letters. Edited by Frederick L. Jones, vol. 339. Oxford University, 2015.

Theisen, Colleen. “Mary and Percy Shelley Letter Mentions Frankenstein Rejections.” The University of Iowa Libraries, U. of Iowa, 8 Oct. 2012, blog.lib.uiowa.edu/speccoll/2012/10/08/special-collections-mary-and-percy-shelley-letter-mentions-frankenstein-rejections/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Welcome to the Process

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

 

Welcome to the Process: What I Learned and How I Did It

At the beginning of the summer, all I knew about the exhibition was its general topic—ecology and religion. How the Brownings and their contemporaries explored this topic in their writing was a mystery to me. I began by talking to people familiar with the authors at the ABL, especially Dr. Josh King. I also read through a lot of secondary scholarship on my topic and hunted down primary texts those authors may have referenced. Emma Mason’s recent book, Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith, for example, includes a comprehensive chapter on Rossetti’s relationship with the Tractarians. Though they didn’t end up in the exhibit, the ABL holds a wide collection of tracts and pamphlets from this nineteenth-century religious movement so influential to the poet. I spent several weeks slowly looking through each item my secondary reading suggested to me, often using keyword searches of digital editions to narrow my focus. This kept me from over-handling rare and fragile volumes.

Four editions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh

Four editions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh

When multiple copies of the same text we available, I compared those copies to determine which one displayed my chosen text most clearly, which was most durable for display, etc. The Library has many copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, for example. Not only did I keep a recently-published critical edition at my desk for my own reference, I looked at half a dozen editions to determine which one showed the “Every common bush afire with God” passage most readably. I compared Wordsworth’s first and second editions of Lyrical Ballads to EBB’s own collection of his poetry to see which would best illustrate not only his conviction about nature’s capacity for spiritual renewal but also the influence that vision had on the poets that came after him.

Exhibit Layout Mockup

Exhibit Layout Mockup

I photographed everything I looked at so that I could reference digital images when necessary. This also reduced how often I handled the books. When I had found a few dozen solidly relevant and compelling texts, I grouped them by theme, and considered how they might relate to one another. Texts that had less in common with the rest, I culled. Sometimes a connection—like the burning bush image in two separate poems by two different authors—made my choice for me. I wasn’t planning on using that particular page of Aurora Leigh to begin with, but it makes for a very interesting comparison with Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, “Tread softly! all the earth is holy ground.”

Christina Rossetti's Sing Song: A Nursery-Rhyme Book

Christina Rossetti’s Sing Song: A Nursery-Rhyme Book

Some discoveries were surprises. For example, I looked at Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner self-indulgently. After all, if a first edition Coleridge is available, you ask to look at it. As I was rereading the poem—which I hadn’t really looked at closely for years—I realized that it shared the same central theme of the relationship between recognizing nature’s beauty and being able to pray that several other poets had already considered. Including Mariner pushed me to display the “Linnets” poem from Sing-Song in addition to “Hurt No Living Thing”—even though that meant relying on facsimiles, as the pages don’t face each other.

Once these decisions were made, I began drafting text for each item based on what I knew. I revised that text for brevity, then asked for feedback from peers and professors. This feedback led to a lot more clarification about each item’s unique characteristics as well as their relationship with the overall theme. As I revised, I also digitized some texts for use in blog posts, social media, and other promotional material. I worked with Laura French and others at the ABL to build custom cradles for display. And I continued reading about the subject, the authors, and the texts along the way. There’s still a lot for me to learn about these authors and this subject, but the process of curating the exhibit has been a remarkable opportunity to learn about the Armstrong Browning Library’s resources and the long history of ecological care rooted in robust Christian faith and practice.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

“Every common bush afire with God”: How Shall We Live Now?

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

How Shall We Live Now? Recognizing and Caring for the Natural World Where We Are

William Morris and John Ruskin were passionate advocates for attending to the natural world around them, from the shores of the Thames in London to the shores of Lake Coniston at Brantwood. But what mattered to writers and artists in nineteenth-century Britain may look very different for us in the places we live today. Part of recognizing the natural world means observing the unique beauties and vulnerabilities of the places we call home. In Waco, TX, home to the Armstrong Browning Library, there are many ways to respond to these artists’ call to recognize the beauty and dignity of nature, and respond with care:

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

If you’re moved by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s challenge to remember the lost Binsey Poplars, consider visiting the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway. Part of the Arboretum’s mission and vision is to be “stewards of the natural environments and resources within its boundaries.” Seeing first-hand what this stewardship looks like for them provides a helpful—and beautiful—model for how to steward our own environments and resources.

 

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris was so committed to recovering the beauty of the Thames that he wrote a whole novel about it in News from Nowhere. The Brazos River could use some of Morris’s passion. Among their many campaigns for change, Keep Waco Beautiful hosts quarterly Brazos clean-up days. Try joining the next one and consider investing your time in some of their projects to beautify and restore Waco neighborhoods.

 

Christina Rossetti’s “Tread Softly!” from A Pageant and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1881.

Christina Rossetti’s “Tread Softly!” from A Pageant and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1881.

When we read Christina Rossetti’s words to “Tread softly!” because “all the earth is holy ground,” it can be difficult to imagine what that might look like practically in our daily lives—especially if we live in a city where beautiful landscapes are hard to come by. Mission Waco’s Urban REAP helps us think creatively about how we can use our resources in urban spaces, both responsibly and beautifully. Whether you live in the city or the country, your daily life relies on rural spaces—farm land, fields of cattle, waterways—increasingly at risk thanks to our industrialized agricultural system. World Hunger Relief provides educational encounters and partnership opportunities for those who would like to “tread softly” on the earth that sustains us.

What are some other ways you can recognize and care for the natural world you’re a part of?

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the ABL’s Archives

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

 

Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the ABL’s Archives

This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the Nineteenth Century,” an exhibition on the intersection of ecology and religion in the work of some of the century’s most admired poets and artists. Many nineteenth-century British writers were deeply concerned with the destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution on their natural environment, both as artists of the written word and as deeply religious thinkers. Much of their concern with the despoliation of the natural world stems from their conviction that we encounter God through the living world of plants, animals, water, sky. These writers believed that humanity is not alone in bearing the image of God; all of creation reflects the divine. Recognizing this divine reflection in nature makes prayerful communion with God possible. But, by extension, harming the earth can further separate us from God. The writers and artists represented here were inspired in their own creative acts—works of art like poetry and painting—as they paid attention to and cared for the world of nature around them. Through their words and images, we may better understand how a robust faith encourages us towards better care for creation in the twenty-first century.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” from Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. Volume 2. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. The Brownings’ Library. P. 162.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” from Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. Volume 2. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. The Brownings’ Library. P. 162.

The exhibition is broken up into three parts, focusing in turn on “Recognition,” “Prayer,” and “Gratitude” as they relate to human participation in the natural world. Throughout the nineteenth century, writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), and others, saw that both humanity and the natural world are cared for by God. These poets warn against simply using nature rather than recognizing its value in God’s eyes, and suggest that attending to nature’s inherent dignity may lead to a better understanding ourselves of what it means to be children of a creative God. These poets encourage us to ask: What have we missed out on because of the carelessness of our nineteenth-century ancestors? What will our own children miss out on because of our carelessness today?

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The section on “Recognition,” highlights Barrett Browning’s “Patience Taught by Nature,” Hopkins’s poem, “Binsey Poplars,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Innocent Eyes Not Ours.” When Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these,” she implies that non-human nature receives God’s grace as freely as humanity does. In “Binsey Poplars,” Gerard Manley Hopkins argues that deliberately harming nature is actually an act of violence against God. Rossetti’s poem is an excerpt revised from her longer work, “To What Purpose Is This Waste?” published by her brother William Michael Rossetti after her death. Both the excerpt and the full poem challenge readers to consider the nature’s value apart from its utility in human industry. Rossetti suggests that such value lies in nature’s inherent posture of praise: “All voices of things inanimate / Join with the song of Angels and the song / Of blessed spirits, chiming with / Their Hallelujahs.” If the natural state of the created world is continual praise of God, we are challenged to treat the natural world with the same reverence we give to the rest of his children. Moreover, we can even learn from nature how best to do praise the Creator ourselves.

The exhibition’s second section on “Prayer” compares works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Christina Rossetti, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to see how the theme of prayer through nature is carried across the century. In his poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth suggests that the mere memory of nature can restore him when he is confined to “lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / Of towns and cities.” Wordsworth’s dear friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and later poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning draw on such encounters with nature to suggest that being attentive to the created world makes us better able to pray. Whether through the limited view of a window or tramping about on the holy ground of the earth, honoring nature brings us closer to God.

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Barrett Browning’s poetic novel Aurora Leigh offers two especially helpful scenes in which the title character discovers this truth for herself. Confined, like Barrett Browning herself, to a bedroom with a single window connecting her to the natural world, Aurora is struck by the reminder (brought to her by the light of the sun) that God has heard nothing from her but tears in many days. Gradually, as she sits by the window and strokes the leaves of the woodbine just outside, her spirits awakes to life and love. “Wholly, at last,” she cries, “I wakened, opened wide my window and my soul.” Much later on a journey through Italy, Aurora continues her reflection on nature’s capacity to draw the viewer to God. “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” she writes, “And every common bush afire with God.” For Barrett Browning, the natural world is more than material. Like the human person, it bears the stamp of the divine presence. Recognizing its beauty can thus draw us closer to the Creator—even as harming nature drives us away from him.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

The exhibition’s third section on “Gratitude” shows how artists and writers like William Morris (1834-1896), John Ruskin (1819-1900), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and Robert Browning (1812-1889) respond to nature in their art and writing, reflecting the beauty of the ordinary world with gratitude and care. Art and social critic John Ruskin argues in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) that “God is a household God, as well as a heavenly one,” encouraging readers to not abandon the world around them for an eternal utopia. He writes:

“God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us…as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to…deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.”

Ruskin’s language of attending to future generations resonates with current conversations about environmental care. In his own time, poets and painters alike were moved by his challenge to create in harmony with the natural world rather than in antagonism with it. In turn, their work inspires readers like us to respond with our own acts of creation—and creation care.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“: